Rick's Iran Travel Journal
|Our trip through Iran has given us a glimpse of a paradoxical world where the murals are mean, yet the people are friendly. We created a slideshow of some of the people, places and moments that have delighted me on this trip, strictly from a traveler's point of view.
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Mission: Understand Iran (May 16, 2008)
A friend from the Washington State chapter of the United Nations Association called me six months ago and asked what I could do to help them build understanding between Iran and the US, and to defuse the tension that could be leading to war. I answered, "The only powerful thing I could do would be to produce a TV show on Iran."
I remember when the bombs first fell on Baghdad, thinking I'd missed an opportunity to make a travel show that could humanize Baghdad and give "collateral damage" a face. I didn't want to miss an opportunity to do this for Iran. My government would let me go. The Islamic Republic of Iran actually wanted the publicity. I threw together a proposal for a TV show — no politics, just travel. The working title: Iran: Its People and Culture, Yesterday and Today.
After months of fitful applications and negotiations, we were given visas and the government's support for our mission: a 10-day shoot in Iran — Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz, and Persepolis. The permissions were so slow in coming that the project was only a certainty last week when we picked our visas up in Athens. (I had a contingency plan for filming in Istanbul.) Like parents-to-be who want to tell the world but hold back until everything looks okay, I couldn't announce our plans until we knew for sure the trip was a go.
In the US (where our current policy is not to talk with enemies), the only way we could communicate with Iran was indirectly, via the Pakistani consulate. (The US has more diplomatic dialogue going with North Korea than with Iran.) In Greece, it was strange to go into a relaxed, almost no-security Iranian embassy...and then walk out with visas. We were on our way.
As I prepare to fly to Iran (from Athens via Istanbul) it occurs to me that this is a huge, time-consuming, and expensive headache. Pondering my motivation, I keep thinking of those strong-hearted Americans who enlisted in our military in the days after 9/11. What motivated them? Love, revenge, freedom, a deep-seated male thrill to kill, patriotism? While the fire in my gut is just as hot and the concern in my heart just as real, my choice of weapons is different. Like them, I don't care about my safety, the cost, or the work...I want to do this. I have to do this.
I know almost nothing about Iran — and it's still a lot more than the average American knows. With something as tricky as US-Iran relations, the foundation of wisdom is to be aware that we can't know the truth from news coverage. Just like I had to actually visit the USSR in 1978 and Nicaragua in 1988, I need to visit Iran in 2008. If war is at stake, I want to know the truth. Because, as I've said before, as an American taxpayer, I believe that every bullet that flies and every bomb that drops has my name on it.
Preparing for this adventure, I've been thinking about the similarities between three countries that are, or have been, notorious thorns in America's side: Nicaragua, Cuba, and Iran. In each of them, we supported an American-business-friendly dictator who was ultimately thrown out by the poor people in that country: Somoza, Battista and the Shah. Then we proceeded to demonize the dictator's successor and traumatize their people with economic embargos and noisy saber rattling. In the next 10 days, I hope to learn more about why Iranians chant "Death to America."
I travel to Iran with plenty of anxiety and questions. How free will we be? Will the hotel rooms be bugged? Is there really absolutely no alcohol — even in fancy hotels? Will crowds gather around us and then suddenly turn angry? We have a good Persian-American friend on our crew with family in Iran. We want to be free-spirited, but don't want to abuse the trust of the Iranian government and possibly cause problems for our Persian friend's loved ones.
I'm nervous — we considered leaving our big camera in Greece and just taking the small one. I even made sure all my electrical stuff was charged up. Will the food be as bad as my memory from a 1978 backpacker trip through Iran, back in the last days of the Shah?
You might wonder why Iran is letting us in. They actually want to boost Western tourism. I would think that since Western tourism would bring in unwanted ideas (like those which threatened the USSR, which prompted its government to keep tourists out), Iran would see no point in allowing tourists in. But they want more visitors nonetheless.
They also believe the Western media have given their society an unfair image. They did lots of research on my work, and apparently my politics gave them faith in my motives. They don't like Fox News or CNN, but say they've had good experiences with public television crews in the past. (I heard we'll get the same minder that Ted Koppel got for his Discovery Channel shoot.)
I want to show the state of Iranian women and this will be very delicate. Cafés that allow crews to show women breaking modesty regulations lose their license.
It's a cash society. Because of the 26-year-old American embargo on Iran, Western credit cards don't work there. No ATMs for foreigners.
I am tired after 24 relentless days of work (in Portugal — eating, drinking, sightseeing and embracing life there while updating that guidebook; and in Greece — producing two new TV shows). I need to be fresh and quick-minded on camera for interactions with people on the street (we hope for lots of this in Iran) and simply to stay healthy. I'll lose a night's sleep as we fly in, arriving at about 4 a.m.
Simon (director), Karel (cameraman) and I vowed to be respectful and keep a professional mindset. We must do nothing cute, clever or flip. (For instance, when our visas were printed with the wrong dates, we couldn't resist calling it a "clerical error.") Once in Iran, however, it's serious business. The tourist board is part of the Department of Guidance.
Who's paying for this production? Me. I figure this adventure will cost me roughly what each household in the US is already paying for Iraq. If I can help avert an extra war — even just a little bit — this will be a brilliant personal investment — and lots of people will owe me big-time. (Do the math: $3,000,000,000,000 divided by 300,000,000 US citizens; cut the zeros = $10,000 per person...that's about $40,000 per family. Care for another war?)
This will be a journey of discovery for me. We have a very sketchy script to start with. It will evolve over the next 10 days. Each day, after a long day of shooting, I'll massage what we've shot and learned into the script, print out a new version and come up with a shooting plan for the next day. My hunch: By Day 10, we'll have a fine show.
I'll try to send a blog report about every two days. I hope you can travel along.
[Interesting development: U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates urges more nongovernment contacts with Iran — Reuters, 5/15/08]
The Pilot Said, "This Plane Is Heading for Tehran" ... and Nobody Was Alarmed (May 17, 2008)
Flying from Istanbul's Ataturk Airport to Tehran's Khomeini Airport, I considered airports others on the flight had used: Reagan, DeGaulle...four great leaders in recent history who have left their mark on entire nations. I was entering a society 30 years into the Islamic revolution of the Ayatollah Khomeini. The lives of 70 million people in the Islamic Republic of Iran have been shaped by this man. More than half the country has no memory of living under anything but a theocracy.
Buckling my seatbelt, it occurred to me that someone could come on the plane's loudspeaker and say, "We're taking this plane to Tehran" and no one would be alarmed. The plane was filled with Iranian people — their features were different from mine, but they dressed and acted just like me.
These people were well off — well dressed, healthy. It was horrible to think of fighting them in a war. Then I wondered if it is easier to bomb a society ground down by years of sanctions. Are scruffy, poor looking people easier to shock and awe? As we all settled into the wide-body jet, I wished the big decision-makers of our world weren't shielded from an opportunity to share an economy cabin with people like this.
I made this same Istanbul-to-Tehran trip 30 years ago. Last time it took three days on a bus and the Shah was on his last legs. Wandering Iranian towns in 1978, I remember riot squads in the streets and the Shah's portraits seeming to hang tenuously in market stalls. I also remember being struck by the harsh gap between rich and poor in Tehran. I was 23 years old. I believe that was the first time in my life I was angered by economic injustice.
The trip is quicker this time — three hours rather than three days. And now every main square and street that was named Shah is named Khomeini. Back then all denominations of paper money had one face on them...like today. At the Khomeini International Airport the only hint of the Shah was the clientele (many of those flying in were likely his supporters who'd fled Iran for the West in 1978 and who were flying in today to visit loved ones).
As the pilot began the descent, rich and elegant Persian women put on their scarves. With all that hair suddenly covered, I noticed how striking long hair can be, how it really does grab a man's attention. Looking out the window at the lights of Tehran, the sight reminded me of flying into Mexico City at night. Tehran, with 14 million people, is more populous than all of Greece (where I was just traveling).
I'm starting this trip a little bit afraid. I don't know what's in store for us. We are anticipating a challenging and extremely productive 10 days here.
Tehran: Heavenly Pistachios...and a Pinch of Valium? (May 19, 2008)
|American journalist mugs with Revolutionary Guard.||Cameraman Karel gets photographed for his press pass.|
|Tehran, a mile-high metropolis of 14 million people.||Our welcome included building-sized anti-US murals showing American flags with Stars of David and dropping bombs painting the stripes.|
I was hesitant to tell anyone about this trip until it was actually happening. One day into this experience, we are definitely here. Revolutionary Guards who can be coaxed to smile, four-lane highways intersecting with no traffic lights, "Death to America" posters, and big warm welcoming smiles...Iran is a fascinating and complex paradox.
Tehran is a mile-high metropolis of 14 million people. With one day of filming down, I'm in a fancy hotel on the 14th floor, enjoying a view of a vast city at twilight, lights twinkling right up a snow-capped mountain. I'm munching the best pistachios I've ever tasted (and I am a pistachio connoisseur) from an elegant woven tray and nursing a tall glass of pomegranate juice. I cruise the channels on my TV — CNN, BBC, and lots of mood-setting programming — perfect for praying... One channel shows the sun setting on Mecca, with its kaaba (the big black box focus of pilgrim worship), in real time. In an urban jungle like Tehran, life can be so good — if you have money.
Our local guide (who doesn't want to be called a "government minder") is a big help and very good. Today we dropped by the foreign press office to get our press badges. There a beautiful and properly covered woman took mug shots for our badges and carefully confirmed the pronunciation of our names in order to transliterate them into Farsi.
Filming is complicated on the streets of Tehran because there is no single authority in charge — many arms of government overlap and make rules that conflict with each other. Permissions to film somewhere are limited to a specific time window. If we have permission to film a certain building, it doesn't mean we can film it from the balcony of a teahouse that we don't have permission to film in, or from any angle that shows a bank — as those are not to be filmed. When we film a shop window, a security guard is on us immediately. Our guide/minder is kept busy asserting himself when someone representing some different branch of government puts up a road block. He makes it all possible. People here like to say, "Iranian democracy: You are given lots of options...and then we make your choice for you."
We can talk to whomever we like — but it reminds me of my early trips to the USSR, when only those with nothing to lose would risk talking openly to us (at least when our "guide" was present). So many who've commented on the blog have assumed I am not troubled by the lack of freedom here. Civil liberties for women, religious minorities, and anyone who chooses not to embrace this self-described "revolution of values" are, to me the mark of a modern, free, and, I believe, sustainable democracy. Those both for and against my trip here all agree with that. A key word here is sustainable. I believe — given time and a chance to evolve on their cultural terms — the will of the people ultimately prevails. For now, this country is not free (and no one here claims it is). A creepiness that comes with big government pervades the place. I wonder how free-minded people cope. I am excited to sort this out as our trip goes along.
At the Shah's palace — a museum since he was overthrown in 1978 — an old aristocratic woman came up to me and said, "We are united and we are proud. When you go home, you must tell the truth." Iranians believe that Western media makes their culture look menacing, and never shows its warm, human and gracious side. I assured her that we were here to show the people of Iran rather than its bombastic government.
I understand well-employed people here make $5,000 to $15,000 a year, and pay essentially no tax. It seems to me that the economy doesn't need to be very efficient, and taxes don't matter much to a government funded by oil. Measuring productivity at a glance, things seem pretty low-energy. While the Islamic Revolution is not anti-capitalism, there seems to be a lack of incentive to really be efficient.
I can tell from our first day that the people of Iran will be the big joy of our visit — everyone's mellow, quick to smile, very courteous. It's almost like the country's on valium. (But then, perhaps Iranians are just not driven as we are by capitalist values to work hard and enjoy material prosperity.)
In a bookstore a woman patiently showed me fine poetry books. As we left, she gave me a book for free. At the Shah's palace, the public toilet was far away and a guard winked and slipped me secretly to a staff toilet — I imagine used by the Shah's lackeys. The folks at the travel agency who set up our tour gave us each a platter of lemony pistachios...the best I've ever had. (My lips are puckered with them now as I type, as they are my standard bedside snack.)
I step out onto my hotel-room balcony to hear the hummm of 14 million people and marvel at fresh snow whitening the mountain above the ritzy high-rise condos of North Tehran. Looking straight down, the hotel's entryway is buzzing with activity, as the hotel's hosting a conference on Islamic unity. The circular driveway is lined by the flags of 30 nations. (Huge collections of flags seem to be common here — perhaps because it provides a handy opportunity to exclude the Stars and Stripes. Apart from being featured in hateful political murals, I haven't seen an American flag.)
A van with an X-ray machine is permanently parked outside the entrance. Everyone who enters the hotel needs to pass their bags through this first. It's interesting to see that Iran, a country we feel we need to protect ourselves from, handles security the same way we do.
No Urinals in Iran (May 21)
|I was greeted by smiles. When I explained where I was from, the smiles got bigger. Hooking fingers seemed to be human nature — we can be friends and can get along.||Cars merge through major intersections without traffic lights as if that's the norm. And, surprisingly...it works.|
|10,000 rials is worth a dollar. While Washington made it on our one dollar bill, Khomeini made it on every denomination here.||Women are covered yet beautiful. In a land where there is no cleavage, a wisp of hair can be ravishing.|
|Locals find me quite interesting. Routinely I've looked up from my note-taking and seen people gathered, curious, and wanting to talk.|
After a few days in Iran, I can't help but think how tourism could boom here if they just opened it up. There are a few Western tourists (Germans, French, Brits, Dutch) but they all seem to be either on a tour, with a private guide, or visiting relatives. Control gets tighter and looser depending on the political climate, but basically American tourists can visit only with a guided tour. I meet no one just exploring on their own.
Tourists are so rare and sights are so few and obvious that you bump into the same people day after day. Browsing through picture books and calendars showing the same 15 or 20 images of the top sights in Iran, I'm impressed by how we've managed to see, or are scheduled to see, most of them. The Lonely Planet guidebook dominates – it seems every Westerner here has one. It's good.
Our guide makes sure we're eating in comfortable (i.e. high-end) restaurants (generally in hotels). They say tap water is no problem, but I'm sticking with the bottled kind. I wasn't wild about the food on my first trip. It's much better now...but still ranks about with Norwegian cuisine in terms of excitement value.
Driving is hair-raising. For several days now we've been zipped smoothly around by Majid, our driver. To illustrate how clueless I am here, for three days I've been calling him "Najaf." And whenever a bit of filming goes well and we triumphantly return to the car, I give him an enthusiastic thumbs up. Finally today he and our guide explained that I've been confusing his name with a city in Iraq...and that giving someone a thumbs up in Iran is like giving them the finger.
Majid drives our eight-seater bus like a motor scooter, weaving in and out of traffic that flows down the street and between lanes like rocks in an avalanche. At major intersections there are no lights – everyone just shuffles through. It works differently here than it would at home – people are great drivers here, and, somehow, it works. I think I'll actually drive more aggressively when I get home. Adding to the chaotic traffic mix are the pedestrians, doing their best to navigate a wild landscape. Locals say when you set out to cross a big street, "you go to Chechnya." I'm told that Iran loses 30,000 people on the roads (in cars and on foot) a year.
The money is complicated. There are about 10,000 rial in a dollar. (If you exchange $100 dollars you are literally a millionaire here.) Ten rial is called a tuman, and some prices are listed in rial, others in tuman...a tourist rip-off just waiting to happen. (I had a shirt laundered at the hotel for "20,000." Was that in rial, i.e. $2? Or was the list in tuman, which would mean the service cost $20? It was hard to tell.) There are no coins and no state-issued large bills. Local banks print large bills to help local commerce. To tell a counterfeit, you rub the number with your finger – if it's the real deal, the warmth makes the numbers disappear just momentarily.
Women are required to cover their hair with a scarf. Local women are expert at wearing them to show just enough hair to grab the eye. In a land where showing cleavage is essentially against the law, a tuft of hair above the forehead becomes the exciting place a man's eye tends to seek out. Tourist women are also required to wear scarves. After appreciating the art of local women being provocative with their hair and scarves, the tourists' efforts seem quite clumsy.
There are no urinals anywhere. I did an extensive search: at the airport, fancy hotels, the university, the fanciest coffee shops. No urinals in Iran. I was told that Muslims believe you don't get rid of all your urine when you urinate standing up. For religious reasons, they squat.
Neckties are rarely seen, as they're considered the mark of a Shah supporter.
Restaurants use Kleenex rather than napkins; there's a box of Kleenex on every dining table. There is absolutely no booze or beer in public. While I keep ordering a yogurt drink (similar to Turkish ayran), our guide and driver enjoyed "malt beverages" – non-alcoholic beer that comes in beer bottles or cans.
Many times, while I've been sitting in the shade quietly reading or writing while the crew got the shots they needed, people have come up to me and curiously asked where I'm from and what we're doing. I chatted with one young man who didn't look as if he was particularly in compliance with the revolution. After we said goodbye, he thought about our conversation, returned and said, "One present from you to me please. You must read Koran. Is good. No politics." The Islamic Revolutionist government has been in power for 30 years now; this man's generation knows nothing else. But then, why should an evangelical Muslim be any more surprising/menacing/annoying than an evangelical Christian?
Imagine Every Woman's a Nun (May 23, 2008)
|For many Iranians what Americans would call "family values" trumps democracy and freedom. They choose a "Revolution of Values."||Imagine a society where all the women are nuns...and all the problems like Maria.|
As I settled into the plane flying us between two Iranian towns, the pilot announced, "In the name of God the compassionate and merciful, we welcome you to this flight. Now fasten your seatbelts."
The Islamic Revolution is a "revolution of values." People here tell me they support it because they want to raise their children without cheap sex, disrespectful clothing, drug abuse and materialism, believing it erodes character and threatens their traditional values. To conservative Iranians, America stands for all of the above. The people I've met here don't want their culture to be like America's. It threatens them as parents. It seems to me they willingly trade democracy and political freedom for a society free of Western values (or lack thereof), that it's more important to have a place to raise their children that fits their religious values. I believe they would even endure a shock-and-awe–style American bombing for this — something tough for our leaders to get their heads around.
(Of course, there's plenty of drug addiction, materialism and casual sex in Iran, but the sex and drugs are pretty well hidden, and the forces in power are fighting these vices the best they can.)
Sometimes you don't see an excess in your own world until you find a different world without that excess. Traveling in Iran, it's clear to me that in the US, our religion is freedom...and materialism. Just about everywhere we look, we are inundated by advertising encouraging us to consume. Airports are paid to drone ads on loud TVs. Magazines are beefy with slick ads. Sports stars wear corporate logos. Our media are driven by corporate marketing. In Iran the religion is Islam. And — at the expense of the economy — billboards, Muzak, TV programming, and young peoples' education preaches the teaching of great Shiite holy men.
Still, I am impressed by how unreligious this famously religious place is. Unlike other Muslim cities I've visited, such as Istanbul and Cairo, there are almost no minarets breaking the skyline, and there's no call to prayer. I've barely heard a call to prayer since we arrived.
In this theocracy, the women must stay covered. Trying to grasp this in Christian terms, I imagined living in a society where every woman is forced to be a nun. Seeing spunky young Muslim women chafing at their modesty requirements, I kept humming, "How do you solve a problem like Maria?" Pondering the time Pat Robertson ran for president — and had millions of supporters — I wondered what our own country would look like if he had won and dominated Congress. Many people would have been ecstatic, and many would have been oppressed. It seems to me that's the state of Iran today under Ahmadinejad.
I asked my guide if, in Iran, you must be religious. He said, "In Iran you can be whatever religion you like, as long as it is not offensive to Islam." Christian? "Sure." Jewish? "Sure." Bahá'i? "No, we believe Mohammad — who came in the seventh century — was the last prophet, and the Bahá'i prophet (Bahá'u'lláh) came in the 19th century. The Bahá'i faith is offensive to Islam. Except for that, we have religious freedom."
I asked, "But what if you want to get somewhere in the military or government?" My guide answered, "Then you better be a Muslim." I added, "A practicing Shiite Muslim?" He said, "Yes."
Friday: Go to Prayer (May 27, 2008)
|As everyone bowed in prayer, they revealed security soldiers and a Death to Israel poster.||Isfahan's great Imam mosque is both a tourist attraction and a vibrant place of worship.|
|After the service, the cleric was eager to talk with us.|
We were in Iran for one Friday, the Muslim Sabbath, and made a point to go to a prayer service.
Filming in a mosque filled with thousands of worshippers required permission. Going behind the scenes at the mosque to explain our needs with administrators there, it hit me that this Islamic Revolution was the equivalent of a communist takeover. (It seemed power was maintained by placing partisans in key positions.) But the ideology they were protecting was not economic (as in the days of the USSR), but religious.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (who, like the artist formerly known as Prince, has a name I cannot pronounce) has inspired a fashion trend in Iran — simple dark suit, white shirt, no tie, light black beard. To get permission to film, we entered a mosque administration office where all the men we encountered dressed the part and looked like the president.
To video the service — which was already well under way — we were escorted in front of 5,000 people praying. I felt self-conscious, a tall blond American tip-toeing gingerly over the little stones men place their heads on when they bend down to pray. As my brain wandered (just like it sometimes does at home when listening to a sermon), I felt all those worshippers were looking at me rather than listening to their cleric speaking. Planting our tripod in the corner, we observed and filmed.
I closed my eyes and let the smell of socks remind me of mosques I'd visited in other Muslim countries. I pulled out my little Mecca compass, the only souvenir I've purchased so far. Sure enough, everyone was facing exactly the right way. Watching all the worshippers bow and stand, and chant in unison, at first seemed menacing to me. Then I caught the eye of a worshipper having a tough time focusing. He winked. Another man's cell phone rang. He answered in a frustrated whisper as if saying, "Dang, I should have turned that thing off." The mosaics above — Turkish blue and darker Persian blue — added a harmony and calmness to the atmosphere (just as our guide had explained earlier).
I realized that the Muslims I'd seen worshipping on TV may have been edited by film teams with an agenda to make the fervent worship of non-Christians look threatening. I made a point to see it as if it were my own church just north of Seattle.
What was intimidating was the need for soldiers to stand guard, standing like statues in their desert-colored fatigues. When the congregation stood, you didn't notice them, but when all bowed, the soldiers remained standing, a reminder that the world was dangerous...especially in mosques. I asked our guide what a brightly painted mural above the worshippers said. He answered, "Death to Israel." (The topic of my next entry.)
Except for the troubling injection of politics, I was struck by the similarities of this worship service: the too-long sermon, the "passing of the peace" (when everyone greets the people around them), the convivial atmosphere just after when people line up to shake the hands of the cleric, and the fellowship as everyone hangs out in the courtyard. On our way out, I shook the hand of the young cleric — short, slight build, trim Islamic Revolution—style beard with a tight white turban, big teeth and a playful smile.
In the courtyard, a man hit the branches of a mulberry tree with a pole as kids scrambled for the treasured little berries. The cleric with the big smile engaged me in a conversation—we joked about separation of mosque and state, and how it might help if his president went to my town for a prayer service and my president came here. Esfahan TV was televising the prayer service. Their crew saw us here and wanted an interview. It was exciting to be on local TV. They asked why we were here, how I saw people, why did I figure there was a US-Iran problem (I pointed to the "Death to Israel" poster for starters). They fixated on how I'd spin my footage and if it would actually be aired. Throughout our trip, we found people assuming we were collecting images to be edited in a negative way to show Iran as scary.
Leaving the mosque, we considered the clips we just shot and pondered how they could be cut and edited to appear either menacing or heartwarming — depending on our agenda. We considered how what we had just shot could be edited with guerillas leaping over barbed wire and so on to be frightening, and how our film crew would instead focus on the men with warm, cute faces praying with their sons at their sides, and the children outside scrambling for mulberries.
It occurred to me that the segregation of the sexes — men in the center and women behind a giant hanging carpet at the side — contributes to the edginess of it (and the fear and anger many Western Christians feel toward Islam). Then I considered how male-led Christian services could also be edited to look threatening. At important Roman Catholic Masses you'll see a dozen priests — all male — in robes before a bowing audience. The leader of a billion Catholics is chosen by a secretive, ritual-filled all-male gathering of guys in strange hats and robes with chanting and flinging of incense. It could be filled with majesty or menace...depending on what you want to show and what you want to see.
When we visited this huge mosque the day before, all I had seen was a lifeless shell with fine tiles for tourists to photograph. An old man stood in the center of the floor and demonstrated the haunting echoes created by the perfect construction. Old carpets were rolled up and strewn about like dusty cars in a haphazard parking lot. Today the carpets were rolled out, cozy, and lined with worshippers. By the time we left, they were rolled up and strewn about again.
After the prayer service, we set up to film me across the vast square from the mosque. My lines were memorized and I was ready to go. Then, suddenly, the cleric with the beaming smile came toward us with a platter of desserts — the local ice cream specialty — like frozen shredded wheat sprinkled with coconut. I felt like Rafsanjani had just interrupted my work to serve us ice cream.
Enjoying his treat, we continued our conversation. He said Khomeini had charisma and if he walked into a room even me, a non-Muslim, would feel it. His successor, today's supreme leader of Iran (whose power trumps the president's) has much less of an impact on the people. Shiite Muslims might miss Khomeini like Catholics miss John Paul II.
Death to Israel...Death to Traffic (May 29, 2008)
|After prayer service at the mosque, a proud dad grabs a photo of his children with his cell phone.||Thirty years later, the former American embassy is still lined with political posters struggling to provide Iranians with an enemy.|
|Being an American makes you the most popular kid in the village.||"Death to Traffic!"|
|Iranians see a world dominated by the USA and are told not to like it.|
I'm working in Iran, part of the "axis of evil" (as defined by my president) in a land whose own president leads chants of "Death to America." This has me thinking about bombast and history.
Of course the word "axis" conjures up images of the alliance of Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito that our fathers and grandfathers fought in WWII. Many locals in each country believe that each president maintains his power only by his ability to stir the simplistic side of his electorate with such bombast.
Bombast hogs the headlines, skewing understanding between the mainstream in each country. If the typical American knows anything about the Iranian president, Ahmadinejad (whose name I cannot pronounce), it's his recent comments about gays and the Holocaust (which, I would imagine, was designed to shore up his political base). The buzz lately in Iran about the American election is what McCain (who famously rewrote the lyrics of the Beach Boys classic song, "Barbara Ann," to become "bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran") or Hillary (who recently said she would annihilate Iran if it attacked Israel) would do if elected president.
And as I explore and experience this country, I can't avoid the hateful images and slogans. Like our children start each school day pledging "allegiance to one nation under God," Iranian kids chant hateful slogans against the Great Satan and its 51st state, Israel. Rather than marketing products to consume, billboards sell a political/military/religious ideology. They glorify heroes who died as martyrs, taunt the US, show the stars and stripes of Old Glory made of Stars of David and falling bombs, and so on.
I try to make sense of the fearmongering and billboard hate, which mixes with huge smiles and welcomes. People greet me with a smile. Invariably, they ask where I'm from. I often say, "You tell me." They guess and guess, running through 9–10 countries before giving up. Finally I say "America" and they are momentarily shocked, thinking, "I thought Americans hate us. Why would one be here like this?" Their smile leaves their face. Then a bigger smile comes back as they say "Welcome!" or "I love America."
In a hundred such interactions in ten days in Iran, never once has my saying "I am an American" resulted in anything less than a smile or a kind of "Ohhh, you are rich and strong," or "People and people together no problem, but I don't like your president." It's clear to me that Iranians like our president as much as Americans like Iran's.
It's ironic that in most countries these days, Americans find they're better off keeping a low profile. But here, in a country I'm told hates me, my nationality has been a real plus — absolutely everywhere I've gone. By the way, our government guide has not stopped me from going anywhere or talking to anyone. We haven't been able to film just anywhere, but I've been free to roam about on my own without him and have fun connecting with locals. And I have absolutely never traveled to a place where I had such an easy and enjoyable time connecting with people. Young, educated people speak English. Locals were as confused about and fascinated by me as I was about them.
I think that, from an Iranian perspective, Iran is to Hezbollah as the US was to the Contras. (Supporters of Israel and the Sandinistas would find both Hezbollah and the Contras evil.) Everyone here understands that the Iranian president is more extreme than their supreme leader, Khamenei (the Ayatollah Khomeini's successor). However, the supreme leader is more powerful than the president. All over town, you see posters and quotes from Khamenei...never the president.
The Iranian president has a kind of Hugo Chavez notoriety around the West for his wild ideas: "Death to Israel," and "The Holocaust didn't happen," and "We have no homosexuals" and so on. He is an ideologue. His ideas make sense to him as does his bombast. He believes that since Germany killed the Jews, Germany should now house them. He doesn't see the rationale of displacing Palestinians to provide Israel a homeland because of Germany's genocide against the Jews.
In our hotel last night, I saw a short news documentary on Al Jazeera. Even without understanding the language, the images spoke powerfully. They showed the towering American-funded wall being built today in Palestine concrete block by concrete block...literally blocking the sunshine from Palestinian communities and making them look and feel like corralled animals. Anyone watching this with an empathy for Palestinians (i.e. the entire Muslim world — a billion people) would be charged with angry emotions.
While the Iranian president solidifies his political base by saying "Death to Israel," his unwavering policy is that when Palestine accepts the existence of Israel, Iran will too.
We stop at the former US Embassy, which hosted the 444-day-long hostage crisis still so profound in the minds of many Americans. (For many who are angry with me for visiting our "arch enemy," that 30-year-old media circus remains the defining event in their mindset toward Iran. It seems that because of this national humiliation, they consider it unpatriotic for a citizen like me to come here as an ambassador of understanding and goodwill.)
Our guide is almost proud to let us walk the long wall of anti-American murals. He encourages us to film it, making sure we know when the light is best for the camera.
As a gang of revolutionary students captured the world's attention by insulting the US, this was a great moment for Iran. But that was 30 years ago — and today, most Iranians weren't even born yet, and they seem happy to let the murals fade in the sun.
As we were struggling to drive away in a horribly congested street, our guide made a telling aside. He declared, "Death to traffic." Then he said, "Because we can do nothing about this traffic, we can all say 'Death to Traffic'." Did he mean kill all those drivers that were in our way? Does Iran really mean death to the US and Israel? Or is it a mix of international road rage, fear, frustration — and the seductive clarity of a catchy slogan? This quirky cultural trait might be worth looking into and trying to understand.
All I've got to say is, "Death to hatred and militarism based on misunderstanding, fear and national pride."
(By the way, I was in Iran for ten days earlier this month and have so many ideas to report on that my entries are lasting longer than my trip. While I will continue reporting my Iranian experiences for a few more days, I am no longer there. From Iran, I flew to Italy to continue my research trip, which will be followed by Germany and Paris before flying home in mid-June. Thanks for traveling with me via this blog. — Rick)
Persepolis: 2300 Years Ago, Iran Was Omnipotent (June 1, 2008)
|Persepolis is pharaoh-like in its scale. Emperor's tombs are cut into the neighboring mountains.||2500 years ago, subjects of the empire (from 28 nations) would pass through the Nations' Gate bearing gifts for the "King of Kings."|
|The tarmac laid for an aristocratic "tent city," set up by the Shah to celebrate 2500 years of Persian empire, still survives — reminding visitors where their revolution came.||Locals — quick to smile for the camera of a new American friend — visit Persepolis to connect with and celebrate their impressive cultural roots.|
|With the sun low and the colors warm, Simon, Karel, and Rick are enjoying a great day of filming. I would say this is your public television pledge dollars at work...but this shoot's on me.||Under a blistering sun, the rocks share the cool of the night.|
|Europeans enjoying the greatest sight between the Holy Land and India.||While the tourist women may have looked gawky in their scarves, I looked worse under my "script sun hat."|
The sightseeing highlight of our ten days in Iran was the ancient Persian capital of Persepolis, what I'd consider the greatest ancient sight between the Holy Land and India. Arriving there in the middle of a vast and arid plain was thrilling. This was a rare place that actually exceeded my high expectations. My main regret in traveling through Iran on my first visit (back in 1978) was not trekking south to Persepolis. Now I've experienced it.
I wanted to include Persepolis in our TV special because it's a powerful reminder that the soul of Iran is Persia, and that predates the introduction of Islam by a thousand years. Persepolis merited 450 words out of our 5400 word Iran script. Here's my take on Persepolis as told in a bit of the rough script (hence the sequence numbers) from our upcoming TV special, which will air in early 2009. As I reread this, I can see some of the most stunning high-definition video we've ever shot:
 A 40-mile drive from Shiraz takes us to Persepolis, the dazzling capital of the Persian Empire back when it reached from Greece to India. For nearly two hundred years, from 518 BC to 333 BC, this was the home of the "King of Kings." It was built by Darius and his son Xerxes the Great around 500 BC.
 It's a big complex of palaces of the greatest kings of the day. They were so strong, no fortifications were needed. Still, 10,000 guards were permanently posted here.
 This is the "Nations' Gate," where dignitaries from the 28 nations subjugated by Persia passed in "we're not worthy"-style to pay their taxes and humble respect to the "King of Kings," as the emperor was called.
 Cuneiform inscriptions from 500 BC say the same thing in three languages. Roughly: the king is empowered by god. Submit totally to him for the good of Persia. All nations can live in peace if you are compliant.
 The palace of Xerxes, called the Columned Palace because it once had 72 columns, each with the uniquely Persian capital, had a precious roof of Lebanese cedar carried here all the way from the Mediterranean. Xerxes the Great defeated the Greeks and burned and pillaged Athens in 480 BC.
[83 reliefs] Beautiful carved reliefs survive throughout the ruins of Persepolis. Supplicants gracefully climb the same steps we do, bringing offerings to the king. Lions were a symbol of power. They represented the king and even the power of the seasons. In this reoccurring scene, a lion kills a bull, symbolizing spring killing winter and bringing new life. Today, Iranians still celebrate their new year on March 21, the first day of spring.
 The figure on the eagle's wing, that Zoroastrian symbol, is a reminder that the king's power came from Ahuramazda — the Zoroastrian god.
[85 Rick On Camera] Imagine this place at its zenith: the grand ceremonial headquarters of the Persian Empire. Coming here you have high expectations. Being here, they are exceeded. Iranians visit with a great sense of pride. For an American, it would be like having Monticello, Cape Canaveral, and Mount Rushmore all rolled into one magnificent sight.
 Grand royal tombs, the scale of Egyptian pharaohs — or Mount Rushmore — are cut into the adjacent mountainside. The awe-inspiring tombs of Darius and Xerxes come with huge carved reliefs featuring ferocious lions: even in death, they're reminding us of their great power.
 But no empire lasts forever. In 333 BC Persepolis was sacked and burned by Alexander the Great, the Macedonian Greek who turned the tide against Persia. Ending Persian dominance, he spread his Greek culture all the way to India. Persepolis has been a ruin ever since.
We arrived after a long day of driving — just in time for that "magic hour" before the sun set. The light was glorious, the stones glowed rosy, and all the visitors seemed to be enjoying a special "sightseeing high." Iranians were savoring this reminder that their nation was a huge and mighty empire 2500 years ago.
The temperature (as it does in the desert when the sun goes down) dropped dramatically. I pressed my body against the massive stone walls to feel the warmth stored in the stones. (The next morning, under a blistering sun, I hugged the same wall to catch the cool of the night that it still shared.)
I was impressed that the approach to this awe-inspiring site was marred by a vast and ugly tarmac with 1970s-era light poles. This is left from the Shah's party celebrating the 2500 year anniversary of the Persian Empire — designed to remind the world that he ruled Persia as a modern-day Xerxes or Darius. The Shah flew in dignitaries from all over the world, along with dinner from the finest restaurants in Europe. Iranian historians consider this arrogant display of imperial wealth and Western decadence the beginning of the end for the Shah. Within about a year, he was gone and Khomeini was in. I think it's left here so visiting locals can remember who their revolution overthrew.
I saw more Western tourists visiting Persepolis than at any other single sight in the country. They were from all over Europe and Australia — all with local guides, most with the Lonely Planet guidebook to Iran, and everyone marveling at how Iran has great tourism potential. (After the elegant way local women wear their scarves, I can't help but notice how gawky many tourist women are in their scarves.)
Persepolis has the majesty of Giza or Luxor in Egypt. And I was most struck, not by the international tourists, but by the local people who travel here to connect with their Persian heritage. Wandering the sight, you feel the omnipotence of the Persian Empire and get a strong appreciation for the enduring strength of this culture and its people.
Clipped Wings Only on Campus in Tehran (June 9, 2008)
|The woman in the bookstore gave me a free book.||Martyrs walking heroically into the sunset of death for god and country.|
|In the university there's a lounge for boys...and one for girls.|
After traveling through Iran, my notebook is filled with quirky observations. Reading the comments readers share on my blog is also thought-provoking. The whole experience makes me want to hug people and scream at the same time. It's intensely human.
One moment, I'm stirred by propaganda murals encouraging young men to walk into the blazing sunset of martyrdom. The next, a woman in a bookstore serves me cookies and offers me the book I admired for free.
My friends are worried about my safety, and even progressive people have adopted the post-9/11 phrase "be safe." (Hearing that makes me want to do something dangerous.) Safety is the least of my concerns in Iran. The only danger I could imagine during my visit would be something explosive falling from an American airplane high above.
And I learn that after the JFK assassination, there was a popular song here that was a standard among grade-school children. They sang, "Oh, God, what would the world be like if Kennedy were brought back to life?"
I marvel at some example of inefficiency in this society...and then see an old man with a beautifully carved walking stick ingeniously designed with a small flashlight in its handle to light the way home through his poorly lit village late at night.
In our TV filming, I was excited to visit the University of Tehran in hopes of showing highly educated and liberated women and an environment of freedom. Conformity on any university campus (in the USA or Iran) saddens me. You conform once you are parenting or paying off a house or climbing the corporate ladder, but university is where you run free...barefoot through the grass of life, leaping over silly limits just because you can. I assumed I'd find a free spirit at the biggest university in Iran. But the University of Tehran made BYU look like Berkeley. There was a strictly enforced dress code, no non-conformist posters, top-down direction for ways to play, segregated classrooms and cantinas...and students toeing the line.
Hoping to film some interaction with students, I asked for a student union center (the lively place where students come together on Western campuses), but there was none. Each faculty had a cantina where kids could hang out, with a sales counter separating two sections — one for boys and one for girls. In the USA, I see university professors as a bastion of freedom (understandably threatening to people who are against freedom). In Tehran, I found a situation where the theocracy was clearly shaping the curriculum, faculty, and the tenor of the campus. It was the saddest and most disheartening experience of my Iranian visit. I only visited one campus, but I was told it was the biggest and most prestigious in the country.
While the traffic is crazy, it is not noisy. Because of a history of motorcycle bandits and assassinations, only small (and therefore quieter) motorcycles are allowed. While traffic is enough to make you scream, people are incredibly good-humored on the road. I never heard angry horns honking. Once, while stalled in Tehran traffic, people in the neighboring car saw me sitting patiently in the back of our van: a foreigner stuck in their traffic. They rolled down their window and handed my driver a bouquet of flowers with instructions to give it to the visitor. When the traffic jam broke up, we moved on — with a bouquet from strangers in my lap.
Making Friends with my Iranian Guide (June 11, 2008)
|My reach is longest as two narcissists burn under the Persepolis sun. And wait, what's that camera in the background?||Whenever we filmed a place of commercial or religious importance a plain clothes security guard would appear. Seyed would earn his pay by explaining who we were and what we were doing. It wasn't always easy as different branches of the Iranian government don't work entirely in sync (perhaps like different branches of American intelligence).|
|Seyed was expected to follow that big camera wherever it went. Zipping through the chaotic traffic to show the "point of view" of Rick on a motorcycle taxi? Hang on tight and follow that bike.||Our government guide, Seyed, documents our shoot on his tiny camera.|
Here is a short email back-and-forth I had with our Iranian government guide, which I thought might be of blog interest. Seyed must be the top Iranian government guide (he accompanied Ted Koppel on his recent Iranian shoot). He was with us from start to finish. I wish you could hear his voice (as I can) in his writing:
To: Rick Steves Subject: Thanks from Tehran Iran, Seyed is sending you his best wishes
Dear Rick, I hope you and your family are well. I am following your web blog and I enjoy your comments and also the comments of your fans. I am so glad you had the interest in Iran and writing and caring about my country, Iran.
I am going to take my group to Italy next month so I meant to ask some of your advice if possible please. Unfortunately we do not get much American tourists at the moment, but I hope after your video about Iran comes out, then more American people will decide to come to Iran so that I myself will have more jobs and also all my colleagues will have jobs and Iranian people, not Iranian government, will enjoy the benefit of it.
I hope that people who comment on your web blog get and understand the reality that I as a tour guide have never misled you or misinformed you. As you saw, I have been honest and loyal to you and have answered all your questions according to my knowledge and plus that as I have said before I am not a government guide. But if you insist on calling me your government guide then go ahead please, no problem, call me as you wish.
I hope that some day I can come over to America and give some speeches in some universities and tell American public more facts and reality about Iran, so that we can have more understanding from each other.
My best wishes for you and your family and Simon and Karel and Abdi. It really was a great honor for me to be able to work with you and learn from you. As you said when you were in Iran, we have our differences, but it does not mean we have to change each other, but we can have respect for one another. Thanks for your friendship.
Seyed Rahim BATHAEI
Thanks for the kind email. I have been so inspired by my learning experience with you in Iran. I am glad you are following the blog. It is interesting...so many the comments! People have strong feelings. I am thankful for your help and I agree you never misled us. In fact, you were the one who opened so many doors. I hope we can stay in communication. Would it be okay with you if I put your email on my blog?
Thanks for your so kind and so fast e mail. I think you are a superman and I am jealous of you how hard you work and how you take your job seriously and I think that is why you are a successful businessman and producer. That is something I like about Americans, the hard work. I did not tell you that once some years ago I tried to start a small business, but later I became bankrupt because I could not work hard enough and my mind was not a business wise mind so I failed. But I learnt some good lessons from you this time.
About putting my email in the blog, as you know my answer always is yes, as you saw I like publicity. I am so open for socializing with people and talking to people and even getting criticized and listen to criticism. It is OK to show my pictures and video and name and email and everything. As a mater of fact, some of my American tourists who have come to Iran and I have been their tour guide had seen your blog and noticed my picture there and they emailed me about it.
Even I know some of the commenters in the blog. And as we talked about my big wish is to become a commentator in the US TV morning shows and talking about politics. Of course I only mentioned I want to be in Hollywood which was a joke, but in fact I like to talk on TV shows, which I am working toward by appearing in documentaries, thanks to your video too, I will be one step closer.
I hope some day you start your tours to Iran and I can be the tour leader for your groups to Iran. My best wishes for you and your family.
Snippets from Our Iran Script (June 13, 2008)
Our shooting is finished, our crew is home, and now we set about to editing all the footage into a one-hour TV special. Without telling you all the details of our show, here are some excerpts from the script that (especially if you can imagine the gorgeous footage we captured to illustrate these words) I hope will give you that Iranian sense of place:
[1 OC (on camera)] Hi, I'm Rick Steves — in what just might be the most surprising and fascinating land I've ever visited. We're in Iran — here to learn, to understand, and to make some friends. Thanks for joining us.
[3 OC] Like most Americans, I know almost nothing about Iran. For me, this is a journey of discovery. What's my hope? To enjoy a rich and fascinating culture, to get to know a nation that's a leader in its corner of the world (and has been for 2,500 years), and to better understand the 70 million people who call this place home.
[9 with POVs from car, motorcycle taxi, pedestrian crossing] Traffic is notorious here. Drivers may seem crazy, but I was impressed by their expertise at keeping things moving. Many major streets actually intersect without the help of traffic lights. It's different...but it works. Helmet laws are ignored. To get somewhere in a hurry, motorcycle taxis are a blessing. But wear your helmet. I'd rather leave a little paint on passing buses than a piece of scalp. Pedestrian fend for themselves. Crossing the street is dangerous. Locals say it's like "going to Chechnya."
[10 general chaos cut-aways] Just wandering the teeming streets here is fascinating and endlessly entertaining. And having survived Chechnya, I'm ready to celebrate with a refreshing local treat.
 This isn't just any ice cream sandwich — it's got rose water, saffron, and pistachios...a Persian specialty.
[14, face montage] Of Iran's 70 million people, about two-thirds are under 30. People are mostly Persian. While there are minorities, we'll focus on Persian population. The local ethnicity reflects the turmoil of its 2,500-year history. Local blood comes with Greek, Arab, Turkish, Mongol, Kurdish, and Azerbaijani influence. These are not Arabs, and they don't speak Arabic. They are Persians and they speak Farsi. This is an important issue with the people of Iran — don't call them Arabs. Each face seems to both tell a story and beam with warmth...especially when they see a film crew from the USA. We found that the easiest way to get a smile was to tell people where we're from.
[16 OC] Another communication challenge: people here need to keep track of different calendars: Persian and Muslim (for local affairs), and Western (for dealing with the outside world). What's the year? It depends: After Muhammad — about 1,390 years ago, or after Christ — two thousand and some years ago.
 Walking the streets of any city here, it's clear that Iran is ruled by a theocracy. They may have a president, but the top cleric, a man called "the supreme leader," has the ultimate authority. His picture — not the president's — is everywhere. Religious offering boxes are on every street corner. The days when the shah's men boasted Iranian mini-skirts were shorter than those in Paris are long gone.
 While the Islamic Republic of Iran is a theocracy rather than a democracy, I was surprised at the general mellowness of the atmosphere compared to other Muslim countries. I barely heard a call to prayer. Skylines aren't broken by minarets. And — except for women's dress codes and the lack of American products and businesses (because of the US embargo on Iran) — life on the streets here is much the same as in secular cities elsewhere.
[41 Isfahan] Isfahan, with 1.6 million, is a showcase of ancient Persian splendor. One of finest cities in Islam and famous for its dazzling blue-tiled domes and romantic bridges, the city is also just plain enjoyable. I'm not surprised that in Iran, this is the number one honeymoon destination. Isfahan is the cultural heart of Iran. School groups come from all over the country to appreciate their roots. Iranians come to connect with their heritage and celebrate it.
 The Chehel Sotoun Palace is a vivid reminder that Isfahan was the capital of Persia 400 years ago. With its reflecting pool, fine gardens, and portico of twenty delicate wooden columns, this gives you a sense of Persia's 16th- and 17th-century Golden Age.
 Stepping inside, you are struck by the elegance and grace of Persia at its zenith. Tender dancers, flowing hair, dashing moustaches, and sumptuous riches, it comes across in these fine paintings.
 Frescoes in its grand hall tell how the shah maintained, defended, and expanded his empire. Here the shah and his troops quell a revolt against his rule by the Uzbekis. Then, defending his empire, the shah battles the Ottoman Turks — with their frightening new artillery — and manages to stop their eastward juggernaut. Waging what I would imagine was very high-powered diplomacy, the shah threw extravagant banquets in this very palace. Here Turkmans, of today's Turkmenistan, were treated to wine, women, and song — with traditional Persian instruments. The dancing girls that worked up a thirst...and a refreshing watermelon. And in this banquet, the shah of Persia welcomed the emperor of India with a similar lavish banquet...and then, a century later, the shah invaded India anyway.
[53 cemetery] Whatever the root causes — faith or nationalism — the Sunni and Shiite Muslims share a bloody past. And the killing continues. Like cities throughout Iran, Isfahan has a cemetery dedicated to the 400,000 martyrs — as anyone who dies in a religious or national war is called — of the Iran/Iraq War. All the portraits and all the dates are from 1980 to 1989. Over two decades later, the cemetery is still very much alive with mourning loved ones. While the United States lives with the scars of Vietnam, the same generation of Iranians live with the scars of their war with Iraq — a war in which they, with one quarter our population, suffered six times the deaths.
 We meet two families sharing a meal at a grave site. They each lost a son in the war. They met here at the cemetery nearly twenty years ago and became friends. Their surviving children married. And they've shared memorial meals together here at the tombs ever since.
 Traveling through Iran teaches many things. This ancient land is a complex center of many civilizations through the ages. All along the way we met people: warm hospitality, spontaneous, gregarious, and curious. While they generally didn't like our government, they seemed inclined to genuinely like Americans. Just like my country, there's a dominant ethnic group and a dominant religion, with plenty of ethnic and religious diversity at the same time. And just like my country, there's a not-always-graceful synthesis of influences: modern and traditional, liberal and conservative, secular and religious. Like in my hometown, people of great faith are threatened by people of no faith or a different faith. And, as with my neighbors, in the interest of being close to God, people of great faith treasure their time-honored rituals as a defense against the onslaught of modern materialistic society that threatens the moral fabric of their society.
[89 OC] I came to Iran a little nervous. I leave struck more by what we have in common than by our differences. I've overcome my fear by getting to know the Iranian people. Granted, there's no easy solution to the problems confronting our two nations. But surely getting to know this culture is a step in the right direction. I'm Rick Steves. Happy travels...and as they say here, "May peace be upon us."
Martyrs' Cemetery: Countless Deaths for God and Country (June 17, 2008)
|In Iran, every city has a martyrs' cemetery.||The tombs of the unknown soldiers give mothers whose sons were never found a place to grieve.|
|How has the loss of this boy's father shaped his world view?||Could be anywhere: A mother and her son.|
One of the most powerful experiences of our Iranian trip was a visit to a martyrs' cemetery. War cemeteries always seem to come with a healthy dose of God — as if dying for God and country makes a soldier's death more meaningful than just dying for country. That is certainly true at Iran's many martyr cemeteries. While there are no solid figures, most estimates are that there were over a million casualties in the Iran-Iraq War. Each Iranian city has a vast martyrs' cemetery.
Iran considers anyone who dies defending the country a martyr and a hero. At the Esfahan cemetery, tombs seemed to go on forever, and each one had a portrait of the martyr and flew a green-and-red Iranian flag. A steady wind blew on the day of our visit, which added a stirring quality to the scene. And the place was bustling with people — all mourning their lost loved ones as if it happened a year ago rather than twenty. The cemetery had a quiet dignity, and — while I felt a bit awkward at first (being part of an American crew with a big TV camera rolling) — people either ignored us or made us feel welcome here.
We met two families sharing a dinner on one tomb. (One of the fathers insisted we join them for a little food.) They met each other twenty years ago while visiting their sons — who were buried side by side. They became friends, their surviving children married, and they come regularly to share a meal on the tombs of their sons.
A few yards away, a long row of white tombs stretched into the distance, with only one figure interrupting the visual rhythm the receding tombs created. It was a mother cloaked in black sitting on her son's tomb — a pyramid of maternal sorrow — praying.
Nearby was a different area — marble slabs without upright stones, flags, or photos. This zone had the greatest concentration of mothers. My friend explained these slabs marked bodies of unidentified heroes. Mothers whose sons were never found came here to mourn.
I left the cemetery sorting through a jumble of thoughts:
- How oceans of blood were shed by both sides in the Iran-Iraq War — a war of aggression waged by Saddam Hussein and Iraq against Iran.
- How this mighty and historic nation's national museum of archeology in Tehran was so humble (when I asked about this, the curator explained that the art treasures of his country were scattered in museums everywhere but in Iran).
- How an Iranian woman had crossed the street to look me in the eye and tell me, "We are proud, we are united, and we are strong. When you go home, please tell the truth."
- How this society — all the delightful little shops, young people with lofty career aspirations, gorgeous young adults with groomed eyebrows and perfect nose jobs, hope, progress, hard work, and gentle people I met over ten days in Iran — could so easily and quickly be turned into an Iraq-style hell of dysfunctional cities, torn-apart families, wailing mothers, newly empowered clerics, and radicalized people.
My visit to the cemetery drove home a feeling that had been percolating throughout my trip. There are many things that Americans justifiably find outrageous about the Iranian government — from denying the Holocaust and making threats against Israel; to oppressing women and gay people; to asserting their right to join the world nuclear club.
And yet, no matter how strongly we want to see our beliefs and values prevail in Iran, we need to understand the 70 million people who live here. What if the saber-rattling coming out of Washington (and the campaign trail) doesn't coerce this country into compliance? In the past, other powerful nations have underestimated Iran's willingness to be pulverized in a war...and both Iran and their enemies have paid the price.
In the coming months and years, I believe smart and determined diplomacy can keep the Iranians — and us — from having to build giant new cemeteries for the next generation's war dead. That doesn't mean "giving in" to Iran...it means war is a failure and we need to find an alternative. If this all sounds too idealistic, or even naive...try coming to Iran and meeting these people face-to-face.
Tight Pants, Necklines, Booze...and Freedom (June 20, 2008)
|The most treasured souvenir of a trip to Iran: memories of its people.|
For some reason, planes leave Iran for the West in the wee hours. My departure was at 3 a.m. My crew caught a flight two hours earlier. My guide went home. I was groggy and all alone. While eager to leave, I was savoring every last impression before flying exactly the opposite route the Ayatollah flew as he returned home to toss out the shah.
Walking down the jetway to my Air France plane at Tehran's Ayatollah Khomeini Airport, I saw busty French flight attendants — hair flowing freely — at the plane's door. It was as if they were pulling people symbolically back into the Western world. As though the plane were a lifeboat, people entered with a sigh of relief. Women pulled off their scarves...and suddenly we were all free to be what to us was so "normal."
For ten days, I was out of my comfort zone in a land where people live under a theocracy — a land that found different truths to be god-given and self-evident. I tasted not a drop of alcohol (Islam is dry). I never encountered a urinal (Islamic men squat). Women were not to show the shape of their body or their hair (they were beautiful nevertheless). And people took photos of me, as if I were the cultural spectacle.
On my first day back in Europe, I noticed hair, necklines, and tight pants like never before. I sipped wine as if it were heaven-sent. And, standing before that first urinal, I was thankful to be a Westerner.
Paris seemed designed to accentuate the cultural differences. When I saw a provocatively dressed woman — tattooed breast barely covered by a black-lingerie top — I kind of missed the thrill of a little extra hair on the forehead of a chador-clad woman. University students sat at outdoor cafés, men and women mingling indiscriminately, discussing whatever hot-button issue interested them. Out of Iran and back in the West, I felt an energy and a volume and an efficiency that is cranked up. People — not on the valium of a revolution of values — are free to be "evil."
Of course, I would never choose to live according to the Islamic Revolution. But I gained a respect for people who are living what they call a 'values revolution" — a respect that I could only understand by actually traveling there. And I overcame a fear that plagues many who've yet to visit Iran.
What do I conclude from this experience? If I were to make any judgment on their theocracy, it would be to point out the irony of a society that is aggressively theocratic, yet actually seems less spiritual than a neighboring, secular Muslim nation — Turkey, where five times a day it's hard to walk down the sidewalk because mosques are overflowing with people praying.
All the "death to America" and "death to Israel" posters Westerners fixate on are impossible to defend. But I will say they seemed very incongruous with the people I met. It made me wonder if the penchant for Iranians to declare "death" to so many things is not so different from Westerners who exclaim "damn those French" or "damn those cowboys" or "damn this traffic jam." Even though this actually means "die and then burn in hell"...of course we don't mean it literally.
There's a lot of debate between our two nations about who's right and who's wrong. Many who comment on this blog seem to know. Some issues (such as the wrongness of denying the holocaust) seem clear-cut. But, as I leave Iran, I'm not convinced that everything is so straightforward. Politicians come and go...but people are here to stay. I leave thankful that I don't live in Iran. Yet I believe the vast majority of Iranians — regardless of what they think of their current government — would choose to live nowhere else.
After this experience, I'm reminded of the fundamental value as well as the simple fun of travel. When we travel — whether to a land our president has declared part of an "Axis of Evil," or just to a place where people yodel when they're happy or fight bulls to impress the girls or can't serve breakfast until today's croissants arrive — we enrich our lives and better understand our place on this planet. It's my hope that with people-to-people connections, we can overcome our fear and mistrust of each other, and, at a minimum, learn to co-exist peacefully. And that gives me and my partners here at Rick Steves' Europe meaning in our work. Thanks for traveling with me via this blog through Iran. I hope you enjoyed the journey.